We used the multiplayer mode on Metroid Prime: Hunters to test the DS's wireless gameplay performance. In an open area, we more than surpassed the DS's rated range of 30 feet; in fact, we got more than 150 feet away from each other before one of us dropped out of the game. Through walls, the range was predictably shorter, cutting out at about 30 feet. In Metroid as well as in PictoChat, a small cell phone-like signal indicator tells you what kind of connection you're getting. Even with only one signal bar, multiplayer Metroid was seamless and completely lag-free. Things bogged down beyond that point, but all in all, wireless gaming was nothing short of a home run. Our one disappointment: older GBA multiplayer games won't play head-to-head over the wireless connection, and the lack of a link cable port means you can't have a wired bond to older GBAs or Nintendo's GameCube.
Introduced about a year after the system launched, Wi-Fi compatibility on the DS is surprisingly solid for a free service hosted by a company known for its aversion to online gaming. Whether on the original DS or the DS Lite, the Wi-Fi setup is simple, as the system can spot most wireless connections. If there are none nearby, you can create one from a broadband-connected PC by attaching the Nintendo USB Wi-Fi Connector to it. Without an external online network such as Xbox Live, finding friends is a bit unwieldy--you have to enter 12-digit "friend codes" for each game for which you wish to create a buddy list. Playing against nonfriends is hit-and-miss; you won't find a pickup game as fast as you will on a console, but as long as you're on a popular game during a reasonable hour, you should be able to locate competition. Over the course of an early evening, we were able to find several opponents in Tetris DS. The microphone lends itself to voice chat, but as of right now, only Metroid Prime: Hunters employs between-match chatter.
With the Sony PSP's power issues well known, the Nintendo DS's battery life takes on particular importance, though Sony's handheld has video and music playback capabilities that the DS does not. We logged 6 hours, 40 minutes of gameplay before the DS ran out of juice, with the low-battery light coming on at the 6-hour mark. As a point of comparison, the PSP's battery can run as short as 3 hours if playing a Wi-Fi multiplayer game or as long as 11 if listening to MP3s, while the DS Lite runs for about 5 hours on the highest brightness setting.
The games for the Nintendo DS are of decent graphical quality--a bit better than the PS1/N64 but nowhere near Xbox/PS2/GameCube standards. They also pales in comparison to PSP games. Where the Nintendo DS earns its stripes is the innovative quality of its titles. Whereas PSP games feel much like their console cousins, the DS dual- and touch-screen setup allows for some truly unique gameplay, whether it's drawing your own Pac-Man in Namco's Pac Pix or performing surgery via stylus in Atlus's Trauma Center: Under the Knife. That said, not many of the other third-party software developers are up to the challenge of taking full advantage of the DS's capabilities. For every Nintendo-produced hit such as Nintendogs or Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, there are several barely updated GBA ports or slightly downgraded PSP ports--neither of which makes much use of the touch- and dual-screen technology.
The DS systems lack the video and audio playback and Web-surfing functions of the PSP, at least in the United States. Nintendo-supported solutions for both--the Play-Yan media player and the Opera Web browser, respectively--have or will soon appear in Japan, though the U.S. release status of both products are currently unknown. We will update this review accordingly when and if the products hit Stateside.
Until the release of the Nintendo Wii, the company seems intent on focusing its creative juices on the DS rather than the near-dead GameCube. There's also multimedia functionality down the pike, with Web browsing and TV tuner add-ons promised by the end of the year. If you still haven't picked a portable gaming system, Nintendo DS is definitely worth a look if its growing list of quirky, original titles is appealing to you. The DS Lite, however, has a much more attractive styling and brighter screens and is available for the same price the significantly bulkier version is selling for now. If you're in the market for a portable system with more mature--albeit less original--titles and decent media playback capabilities, then the PSP may be worth picking up for $70 more.